Curious about how to use figurative language? It’s easy as pie – and our guide will help you get started.
Using figurative language in your writing is a piece of cake (see what I did there?). The concept of figurative language can be tough to grasp, but once you understand these unique, non-literal literary devices, your writing will move to a new level. In our guide, you’ll learn how to use hyperbole, personification, metaphors, similes, idioms, and other turns of phrases that will help your reader understand what you’re trying to say—without actually saying it.
What To Do Before You Start
If it’s your first time delving into the world of different types of figurative language, you’ll want to start looking for examples in your day-to-day life. Listening to one of your favorite songs or reading a few pages of your favorite book can help you open your eyes to just how common figurative writing is in music and literature. If the writer uses words to describe something other than a literal meaning, they’re using figurative language.
For example, a song about a broken heart is speaking figuratively—the person experiencing a difficult time doesn’t have a physically broken heart. Cranking up the radio or pulling out your favorite book will likely have you noticing that figurative language is already a part of your life. Take a little time to notice figurative language in forms of media you’re already familiar with to help get you in the right headspace for learning how to use figurative language in your work.
Step 1: Learn the Common Types of Figurative Language
To use figurative language in your writing, it’s key to understand each of the different forms of non-literal language. As we mentioned, you’re most likely already using figurative language in your daily speech and writing. Still, it can be tough to identify if you’re unsure how to categorize it. We’ll cover a few different types of figurative language here, including similes, metaphors, idioms, and personification.
A simile compares two objects, people, or other subjects using the words “like” or “as.” It’s likely that you already use similes in your everyday speech. The key here is that a simile compares two usually unrelated things. For example, saying, “The baby looks like his mother,” would not be a simile because people regularly compare a child’s looks to their parents.
Examples of similes include:
- Life is like a box of chocolates.
- He’s running like he’s on fire.
- She’s good as gold.
- He’s tough as nails.
A metaphor is different from a simile. It doesn’t use the words “like” or “as.” While a simile says something is like something else, a metaphor says something is something else. Many people use similes and metaphors interchangeably, but this isn’t technically correct. Both types of figurative language compare two things, but a metaphor can be far more complex than a simile. You might also be interested in our life of thought-provoking metaphors about life.
Examples of metaphors include:
- The snow was a white blanket over the landscape.
- Raising teenagers is a rollercoaster ride.
- House-training my puppy made my living room a disaster area.
Metaphors are often used to help a reader understand the intensity of what a writer is working on describing. Some metaphors take up just a sentence or a paragraph, while others are used throughout a work. In writing, returning to a metaphor repeatedly can be helpful to nail home a point to your reader. The example below creates a vivid image, far different from if Koontz said, “I have a creative imagination.”
“Bobby Holloway says my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowcartwheelinging and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out, cool down.”Dean Koontz, Seize the Night
Idioms are words or phrases used in everyday speech with non-literal meanings. Native speakers of a language rarely realize that they’re using an idiom. Using idioms in your writing can help your language feel familiar to your readers and can help make your characters seem more real. Idioms can be one of the most confusing parts of speech for people learning English, as the words and meanings do not correlate.
Examples of idioms include:
- Off the hook
- Call it a day
- Actions speak louder than words
- Kill two birds with one stone
- Spill the beans
- Barking up the wrong tree
- Best of both worlds
Personification can be fun to use in your writing. This figurative language can be used to attribute human characteristics to something nonhuman or to attribute nonhuman qualities to a person. Check out our explainer on how to write a thank you letter.
Examples of personification include:
- He was the human equivalent of an old beer bottle you’d find by the railroad tracks.
- She was like a daisy—fresh, bright, and ready for the summer sun.
- The sun danced on the peaks of the waves as the clouds began to dissipate.
- Linda said she was done with sweets, but her secret stash of chocolate was calling her name.
Step 2: Identify Different Types of Figurative Language
Now that you understand the different types of figurative language, it’s time to start recognizing it in daily life. When you notice that figurative language is used in normal speech, it will become easier to work it into your writing to boost the quality of your words.
While you’ll want to pay attention to your use of figurative language, you’ll also want to continue to focus on the activity we mentioned earlier—keeping an eye out for figurative language in songs and stories. When you notice figurative language, it can be fun to work to determine what type of figurative language is being used.
Throwback time—try to determine what type of figurative language is being used in this lyric from Love Shack by the B-52s:
“I got me a car, it’s as big as a whale
And we’re headin’ on down to the Love Shack
I got me a Chrysler, it seats about 20
So hurry up and bring your jukebox money”
Check out that first line—the car is not as big as a whale. This is an excellent example of a simile.
Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York is also rife with figurative language:
“I want to wake up in a city
That doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap”
The first two lines are a perfect example of personification. New York isn’t human and doesn’t sleep, but Sinatra uses figurative language to make it clear to the listener that he wants to be somewhere that gives him a high-energy feeling 24 hours a day. You might also be interested in our explainers on how to apply deliberate practice and how to use ellipses.
Step 3: Practice Figurative Language In Creative Writing
Ready to begin working figurative language into your writing? Whether you’re a budding Emily Dickinson or you prefer to write in a more informal style, using figurative language can help your readers get to know your characters and can help you to paint vivid scenes that allow your readers to picture the setting you’re describing. Look at some of your writing, and find places where you describe things literally. Challenge yourself to switch it up and use descriptive figurative language.
For example, this passage is literal: The sun was hot, and everyone was sweating. Janine was uncomfortable and wanted to go back inside to the air conditioning.
Adding figurative language helps the reader imagine the scene more accurately: The August sun beat down on the group, and beads of sweat glistened like diamonds on Janine’s forehead. She was tired as a dog and wanted to head indoors, where she’d feel the blast of the sweet air conditioning the moment she opened the door.
The sun beating down, the glistening sweat, the idiom of being tired as a dog, and feeling a blast of cool air all help a reader imagine how Janine feels, even though the words used are not literal.
Let’s take a look at another example: Connie smelled like smoke and wasn’t very nice to the other workers in the office.
Adding figurative language: Connie was the personification of a cigarette—unhealthy, tired, reeking of stale smoke, and a carcinogen to those around her. She spits venom like a snake to anyone who entered her office, and many wondered how long it would take her to get canned.
The original sentence clarifies that no one in the office is a fan of Connie, but the second passage makes her demeanor much clearer to the reader. Personification, simile, and an idiom (canned) all help the reader understand that Connie is difficult.
Looking for more? Check out our guide with extended metaphor examples!
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